With a split this past weekend against Northern Michigan in the books, the regular season is over, finished, done. On the whole, the 2017-2018 Huskies have given us one of the most confounding teams I’ve ever followed in any sport. At any moment, they look like they could play straight up with any team in the country. The next period, though, they look like they can play down to the level of any team in the country—and they actually did that, with two losses each to Alaska-Anchorage and Arizona State.
While there have been highs and lows this year, it’s time to recognize the positive contributions made by several members of Team 95 in Husky History. So, by the power vested in me (by me) as the co-winner of the #1 MTU Fan In Texas for 2017-2018 season (I’m tied with Mrs. Dog), here are my selections for the best of Them Dogs for the past campaign—the First Annual Old Dog Awards. (There’s some overlap with the actual team awards in my list, but what the heck—these are my choices.)
The James Brown “Hardest Working Man in Hockey” Award. This was an easy one—it’s got to be Dylan Steman. The senior forward from Hanover, MN brought his game to the rink every single night, every single period, and, as near as I could tell watching from afar, every single shift. Although he started slowly on the offensive end, he never took an off-shift on the defensive side. Despite not getting any points for the first couple of months, he finished with 6 goals and 9 assists, and most of those points came at key moments. Honorable mention to Joel L’Esperance, who finally figured out the secret of hard work in the last half of his senior year.
The Bob D’Alvise Scoring Award. D’Alvise was Tech’s leading scorer on their last national championship team. This award is easy—just look at the team statistics. Jake Lucchini is at the top with 13 goals and 16 assists. Although Lucchini was streaky, when he was hot, Tech was a much better team. Lucchini’s 13 goals also earns him the Mike Zuke Goal Scorer’s Award.
The Chris Conner “Pound-For-Pound” Award. Chris Conner, the pocket-sized ace from suburban Detroit, was a ray of hope for the Huskies during a stretch where the program struggled for relevance. I actually saw Conner when he was only four years old, getting one-on-one power skating lessons at the rink in Plymouth, MI. Even then, he was small for his age but had amazing ability. I watched him play several times before he was 10, and I knew he was destined for big things. This year’s winner is Gavin Gould, who played with intensity and fearlessness despite his stature. Gould was third on the team in scoring, had a Plus 5 rating for the entire season, and somehow was able to find open ice when no one else could. And he put the puck in the net, something that other forwards struggled with.
The Bob Lorimer “Gibraltar” Award. Lorimer was a great team player, who enjoyed many years in the NHL and has his name on the Stanley Cup. He was the key blueliner on the last national championship team, and was a defensive rock in an era of run-and-gun hockey. This was a hard choice for me, as Mitch Reinke was putting up great numbers when his season was interrupted by an injury. But Mark Auk truly earned this selection, finishing second in scoring behind Lucchini, and his smooth playmaking, slick passing, and excellent positional hockey gave this year’s team the same kind of foundation that Lorimer provided. Beyond his scoring, Auk was Plus 11—the best on the team.
The “How Did I End Up In Houghton?” Rookie of the Year Award. Unless you grew up in the UP, when you first arrive on campus, it can lead to more than a bit of culture shock for a young person. Adding to the strain (and temptations) of the unique Copper Country lifestyle, the weather, and the academics, putting a young player into the spotlight of D1 hockey can make things challenging indeed. This year’s freshman class was fairly strong, and picking one for this award was difficult. Seamus Donohue, Grayson Reitmeier and Justin Misiak all have the potential be great players in the coming years. Mitch Meek isn’t far behind. However, I’m picking Reitmeier because he had two more points than Misiak and Donohue, played in 36 of 37 games, was +2 and did a credible job in the face-off circle.
The John Scott “I Actually Studied” Award. No contest—Dylan Steman with a 3.95 GPA in Mechanical Engineering. With his work ethic, I expect Steman to do great things off the ice as his life unfolds. Kudos!
The Al Karlander Senior Leadership Award. When I first started watching the Huskies in my freshman year at Tech in 1968, Karlander was the best player on the team and led Tech to the first of three straight WCHA championships and a Frozen Four berth. Karlander then scored a hat trick on Hall of Famer Ken Dryden in an NCAA semi-final loss against Cornell—the only hat trick that anyone (apparently) ever scored on Dryden. My pick for senior leadership is Brent Baltus, team captain and fifth on the team in points despite missing 9 games with injury—and having to start the season still feeling the effects of the serious physical problems he encountered the previous year. The “Baltus Way” can be summed up in the second game against Bemidji at Winter Carnival. He’d been hurt—again—and missed a few games—but, after getting medical clearance, insisted he was ready to play when the coaching staff felt he should sit out. He responded with a huge goal that started the rally that gave the Huskies the MacInnes Cup.
The Billy Steele “Penalty Killer Extraordinaire” Award. Steele was the best penalty killer I ever saw—Chris Connor was good for the all-time short-handed goal record, but Steele was fearless, aggressive, and incredibly effective. This year, I can’t give this award to anyone. There were some good individual performances on the PK from time to time, but Tech’s overall vulnerability to goals on the opponent’s powerplay was one of the major reasons why this team was so bipolar. Maybe next year.
The Tony Esposito Goaltending Award. I must admit, I debated this one in my head at some length. I almost didn’t want to award this to anyone, but Devin Kero’s play over the past few weeks clinched it for me. Although Kero still struggles with long shots, particularly when there’s traffic in front of him, he’s overcome a deck that seemed to be stacked against him his entire career at Tech. He arrived as a local hero, following in his brother Tanner’s footsteps, just as Pheonix Copley was leaving for pro hockey. Then Jamie Phillips stepped up, and became one of the Huskies’ best players.
With Phillips gone, Kero was expected to have a great chance to take over, but he struggled early during his junior season, and Angus Redmond never gave up the starter’s job once he got his shot. Then, in Kero’s senior year, with Redmond departing early, Packy Munson was a late roster addition, and Munson was certainly seen as the heir to the Copley-Phillips-Redmond lineage. When Munson was erratic, Kero got some game time, and played well—but got hurt. When he came back, Munson and Robbie Beydoun were sharing crease time. And Kero didn’t help himself. He’d play well one time, then not so well the next night. Finally, after Munson and Beydoun had exhausted their chances, the Huskies turned to Kero in the home stretch. He responded and has played well in several games.
Goaltending takes both physical and mental toughness. Kero has demonstrated enough of that to get my vote for this award.
The John MacInnes Coaching Grade. There’s no award to give for coaching. We’ve only got one staff, and they stand alone and must be judged as a group. So instead, I’m going to grade the coaching staff for what we saw over the course of the season. We see only a glimpse of the interaction between players and coaches, and so, like a seer who reads tea leaves, we are left to assess the coaching element through the results we observe on the ice and the scoreboard.
On the plus side, the staff did a great job getting the team ready for the start of the season. The Ice Breaker win was fantastic. Then things faded. I think Joe Shawhan had a hard time getting this team ready to play consistently, and the goaltending decision-making has left me scratching (with my back leg) behind my ear more than once this year. And the way this team can be dominating for one period and then sloppy, shoddy, undisciplined and just plain bad the next has caused my drinking to increase on game nights.
The Ice Vegas tournament captured my angst perfectly. A victory over Boston College followed by a loss to Arizona State is a perfect metaphor for this season.
When you add it up, a fifth place finish in the WCHA, the next-to-weakest conference in Division I, is nothing to celebrate for a program that claims a goal of regular NCAA tournament participation. I’d say the grade is C- but the Ice Breaker win and late season wins against the top teams in the WCHA tempers that judgment.
And so I say C+. And, as an Old Dog, I’m Old School on grades. Getting a B is a good thing, substantially better than average. Getting an A is special. This year was not special and not above average.
Nothing would make me happier than to eat my words and see this team march through the WCHA playoffs and win the Broadmoor Trophy again. That would be special. Onward to Bemidji.